The History and Psychology of the Lottery
Lotteries are the most popular of all gambling games, with tens of billions of dollars in prizes awarded annually. They are a major source of state revenue, but they also spread irrational gamblers’ addiction to hope. The odds of winning are so long that they require an investment in time and mental energy, which is why so many people play. They may even have quote-unquote systems for choosing the right numbers, such as avoiding those that end in the same digit or picking the ones they’ve seen on a billboard. They don’t think of it as gambling; they believe that by buying a ticket, they are doing their civic duty to help the state and society.
In a fascinating new book, journalist Joshua Cohen explores the origins and psychology of lotteries. He argues that they are the latest phase in an American tax revolt, which began in the nineteen-sixties as population growth and inflation strained state budgets and caused the costs of welfare and public education to spiral out of control. States could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were highly unpopular with voters. That’s when they started to turn to lotteries, a gambling-like activity in which an individual pays a nominal amount of money in exchange for a chance to win a prize, such as property or money.
The term lottery is derived from the Greek noun , literally “fate.” Cohen traces its history to ancient times, when the casting of lots was used for everything from dividing the spoils after the sacking of Troy to giving away slaves and property during Roman Saturnalia feasts. Later, in England and the colonies, lotteries were used to raise money for private and public projects, such as constructing canals, roads, churches, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin’s famous lottery to purchase cannons for the defense of Philadelphia, and George Washington’s Mountain Road Lottery of 1768, are examples of these early lotteries.
Modern-day state lotteries are largely commercial enterprises, although there are still some privately organized lotteries and charitable lotteries, which award goods and services. In the United States, state lotteries are heavily promoted through a variety of media, including television and radio commercials, print and digital ads, and social-media promotions. They are also sold at check-cashing venues, convenience stores, and some gas stations.
Defenders of the lottery argue that it is a form of voluntary taxation that helps to fund schools, libraries, and infrastructure, while also providing entertainment to the general public. However, these defenders ignore the fact that lottery sales are highly responsive to economic fluctuations. They increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates go up, and they are most heavily promoted in areas that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. Moreover, as with other commercial products, lottery spending is addictive and increases with exposure to advertising. These factors make it difficult for states to stop offering them.